2012: Advent Art History: The Naked Baby Jesus Advent Calendar, December 07

by on December 7, 2012

Happy Friday! Today’s nude baby Jesus is taking from another of my favourite paintings:

The Virgin and Child with Chancellor Rolin

Jan van Eyck


Oil on wood

The patron, Nicholas Rolin, was Chancellor to Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. In the image below, taking from an illuminated manuscript by the highly successful Rogier van der Weyden, Philip is the fashionable guy in black, and Rolin is the guy in blue slightly behind him. Rogier also produced panel paintings like Jan, and both of them were very popular during their own lifetimes.

As with The Madonna of Canon van der Paele, the Virgin and Child with Chancellor Rolin is thought to represent a vision had by the patron.

[A quick aside – it’s worth mentioning at this point that we don’t know what the painter or patron called these works. They have been given descriptive titles in retrospect, so the titles we use don’t reflect the patron’s or painter’s intentions or thought processes.]

Back to the painting: Rolin is in prayer over a devotional book. He is using that book to contemplate on the Virgin and Child, and it is this meditative vision that we can see.

Despite this, this painting is not a private devotional image; it is a public statement by Rolin about his place in the world. He commissioned it for Notre-Dame-du-Chastel, a parish church in his home town of Autun.

Rolin and the Virgin and Child are in a fantasy architectural setting, located over what is probably meant to be Autun, where Rolin’s son was installed as Bishop in 1436. Note the adorable little bridge with a chapel.

Infrared reflectograms have been used to study the underdrawing of this painting, and have discovered that Rolin was originally drawn with a bulging purse at his belt (just below his elbow), but this didn’t make it into the final work.

Rolin wears silk velvet cloth-of-gold edged with fur. Although sumptuary laws (laws governing displays of material wealth, including clothing) were not very widespread in the north (unlike in the republican city states of Italy, where displays of this kind was seen as the opposite to civic virtue), it is unlikely that he would have actually worn something like this. Aside from the practicality – cloth-of-gold weighs a lot – he would probably have worn expensive fine dyed wools trimmed with fur, as can be seen in the manuscript illumination. After all, he wouldn’t want to outshine Duke Philip, a man renowned for wearing fashionable black.

I shall finish with a portrait of Duke Philip, because that is one epic hat:

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